The Amgen Tour of California recently announced the 2018 race route and host cities to much fanfare and excitement. It’s exciting news; a huge race in America that comes with worldwide publicity, epic crowds, and big events surrounding each stage. I’ve raced the Tour of California yearly since 2014 and it’s always the most hyped event of the season and the one teammates nearly come to blows over in the battle for a roster spot.
Problematically, the women’s race this year is one day shorter than last year’s four-day event, and still substantially shorter than the men’s seven-day event. When the race announcement came out, it was met was substantial grumbling from supporters of women’s cycling. The passive-aggressive tweet I was too lazy to post said, “Guess the promotors wanted to make sure I was home sooner to breastfeed and get back in the kitchen.”
It’s disheartening to see that for every step women’s cycling takes forward, we take one back. We had two Women’s WorldTour races in the States in 2016, but lost one with the cancellation of the Philly Cycling Classic in 2017. Now Philly is slated to be back as a UCI event in 2018 but we lose a day from our only domestic WorldTour race. This happens year after year all over the world: women gain an inch but give it up elsewhere. Continued progress forward seems to be too big an ask for this sport to handle.
This is where I become controversial.
Despite being a female professional cyclist, running a UCI women’s professional cycling team, and being pregnant with a daughter, I am often critical of the demands women are making in cycling. We want many things – more money, more media attention, bigger and longer races, equality with our male counterparts – but what I don’t see are many people focusing on how these things should happen.
As a bit of background, I’m starting the third year of running a women’s pro team. It will be my 6th year of racing professionally and my 12th year of racing bikes on road and dirt. I’m also 11 years into serving as the Treasurer of Potomac Velo Club, an organization based in the mid-Atlantic region that puts on four to six mountain bike and cyclocross races a year. Outside cycling, I do business development consulting and have worked with companies that sell to the government for over a decade. It’s this collective experience that has led me to a blunt, reality-based, somewhat unpopular take on women’s cycling.
My opinion is this: professional women’s cycling is asking for a lot while often failing to do the work ourselves to earn what is needed to get there. It’s not enough to call for media coverage or to point out how little we get in relation to men or even to race our bikes extra hard to make the events “interesting” in hopes that coverage will follow. It’s not enough to demand a mandated minimum wage without figuring out how to bring in the money to pay those salaries. Everything we want requires money and if we can’t provide a solution for how to get that revenue, we’re not going to see real progress.
Both from managing a team and handling the finances behind hosting dozens of races, I’ve seen that almost all decisions across this sport are financially-based. Who to hire, what to pay them, what events to hold/race, what prizes to offer, what publicity to include: every decision is based on tight budgets and tough choices. Right or wrong, fair or not, money flows where it is economically logical. It’s a harsh reality, but the fact is that women’s racing doesn’t generate the same publicity, participation, fan support, and thus revenue as men’s racing. The top cycling idols for so many people – racers or not, men or women – are male. When I mention to people in the outside world that I’m a cyclist, they ask whether I’ve met Lance Armstrong, not Kristin Armstrong.
My biggest challenge in running the team (other than avoiding a nervous breakdown and alcoholism) has been money. Getting it, having enough of it, convincing the people that gave it to me that it was a good investment. I’ve spent months now building the program for 2018 and still have heaps of work left convincing supporters to build out our budget. It’s a full-time hustle to persuade companies to support a women’s pro team and the biggest question I have to answer for these potential sponsors over and over again is WHY. “What do we get out of it?” To get anywhere near their wallets, I have to show value.
Thus I spend all of my time thinking about how to deliver value through women’s cycling. The traditional promises – jersey space, a logo on a car, riders using a product that is given to them – are hollow and don’t actually lead to a measurable return on investment. Even podium finishes don’t help a cybersecurity company sell more software. As the team owner, I have to come up with truly meaningful returns: participation in company events and employee wellness programs, riders consistently promoting the sponsor across social media and traditional media, opportunities for company VIPs to be with the team at races and events.
I still fail much of the time, because that’s the business of seeking sponsorship. And money remains tight, which is why I pay my riders and staff as much as I can afford, but nowhere near what the UCI would mandate as a minimum wage. This is why I shake my head when another call goes out for an enforced minimum wage in women’s cycling. Do you know what that would do to our sport? How many teams would be forced to fold or step down out of the top levels of racing? Sure, it would professionalize the highest level of our sport but at cost of having many teams in the events where we’re trying to prove that women’s cycling is big and exciting. I’d love to pay everybody more because they work so damn hard and certainly deserve it, but the reality is that if I paid everybody what they are worth, my team couldn’t afford the stamp to send our registration to USA Cycling.
Many teams are in this same position: we do the best we can with the money we have to compensate our riders/staff while putting on a strong race program. Getting more money means landing more sponsors and then bringing them enough value that they stay and other companies see their success and are motivated to sponsor as well. This takes a shitload of work but is the only real way to grow, both as a team and a collective industry. If we want more from the sport, we have an obligation to do more than throw a leg over the bike, ride hard, and look pretty and interesting. We have to earn the money needed to pay for the things we want; we have to drive spending towards events, media coverage, and sponsor companies. When we bring in the money, then we can put our hands out to demand our share of it.
To be clear: I know without a doubt that women’s racing is just as challenging, as grueling, as heartbreaking as men’s racing. The length of our races may be shorter and the fields smaller, but the competitors are just as hungry, the crashes are just as hard, and the quality of the athletes is just as high. It’s no secret that the fastest/strongest man will be faster/stronger than the fastest/strongest women; that’s physiology and a fact of professional athletics. But the women competing at the top level are trained to 100% of their ability and put out 100% effort, just as the men do. We want the win just as badly and are willing to fight just as hard to get it. The one question that doesn’t belong in this discussion is whether or not professional women’s racing is equal to men’s in terms of grit and intensity. We are equally worthy.
But knowing that and proving it to the world doesn’t instantly mean more money is there to fund our sport. We need to show fans, companies, and sponsors that there is value in supporting women’s cycling and that spending their money on us is a great investment. Make clear the answer to their question of “what do we get out of it?”
A great place to start is in growing the women’s cycling fanbase. If we can expand our audience, companies will have greater access to potential customers by supporting our racing. Teams and riders try to do that now, but the current methods are slow-growing and short-reaching at best. A race is livestreamed and riders jump on social media to promote it before the event, but what audience does that reach? Their followers: the people who are already paying attention and already care. We need to grow that audience ourselves well in advance so there are more people around to hear when the proverbial tree falls in the woods.
I’ve come up short on this so far. I started a women’s team and work to show sponsors that our sport is a worthwhile investment, but that’s a narrow focus and only my team benefits from this effort. I’ve been passive and lazy and haven’t done enough to help this sport grow. I’m one of the people retweeting a livestream link the day before the race and then complaining when thousands of people aren’t watching. It’s time for that to change.
Hagens Berman | Supermint is launching an ambassador program for women in 2018. We are making a big push to reach into the cycling community and connect with women at all levels and types of riding. These are the women who might not know or care much about pro cycling, but love riding on their own terms and are no less important or valid as cyclists. They have the potential to be our future fans and supporters, but the first step in getting them to care about what we’re doing is to care about what they’re doing. There are millions of these women around the world and if we want them and their friends, husbands, partners, and kids to support our racing, we need to make the first move. It’s a small start, but we must begin somewhere.
This program has received dozens of applications already and I hope to get many more before the application period closes on November 20. You can learn more about the ambassador program and/or apply at http://supermintusa.com/ambassador/. My hope is that by connecting our riders, staff, and sponsors with these ambassadors throughout the year, we learn more about their cycling lives, what motivates and deters them, and how we can better grow our sport.
It’s not enough ask for what we want, or even to passionately demand it. Throughout history, the people that have made a real impact in women’s rights were the ones who went out and did something about what they wanted. They didn’t just explain why they should get it; they made it happen and didn’t stop until it did. There are already people working every day to push resources towards women’s cycling and grow the sport – Kathryn Bertine, Sarah Connolly, Chris Rivera, and a handful of other passionate advocates. We need to help them. I’ll still make passive-aggressive comments when races are shortened but now I feel a real obligation to be part of the engine driving this business forward. Please join me.